Don Brubaker oversees Skaggs Island, a former Naval station in the Bay Area. (Louis Sahagun / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from San Rafael, Calif. -- As the morning fog peeled off the northernmost reaches of San Francisco Bay on a recent weekday, federal wildlife refuge manager Don Brubaker walked among relics of a secret Navy listening post on Skaggs Island — patches of asphalt, a few palm trees and a dilapidated gazebo.
The military installation operated for 51 years on the 3,300-acre man-made island about a half-mile north of the shoreline, surrounded by marshlands and kept dry by a system of levees and pumps that continue to divert water off its weedy flatlands.
Standing waist-deep in prickly thistle bushes, Brubaker smiled and mused, "Picture in your mind's eye a self-contained military base of 300 personnel, homes, a movie theater, an elementary school, a market and a gleaming water tower that could be seen for miles."
"When the Berlin Wall fell, the Navy just walked away from this place," he added. "Almost overnight, it became a no-man's land ruled by meth cookers and vandals.
"Now, the challenge is to restore an environment that has been radically changed."
By order of a hard-won agreement among elected officials, environmentalists and the Pentagon, Skaggs Island is being restored to marshlands.
On March 31, the Navy transferred ownership of Skaggs Island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which added it to the 13,000-acre San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge created in 1974 to protect and restore an area that once comprised the largest wetlands systems along the Pacific coast.
After the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills in the 1850s, the North Bay's marshes were filled, diked or drained to create dry land for agriculture and salt evaporation ponds needed to support development in San Francisco. Today, only an estimated 10% of the region's original 850 square miles of wetlands survive intact.
Brubaker is manager of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a patchwork of brackish ponds, weedy grasslands, isolated stands of eucalyptus and pine trees and navigable waterways that support steelhead runs, including Sonoma Creek and the Napa River. It is part of a chain of three adjacent wildlife refuges stretching across the overlapping agencies, communities, industries and individuals that have claims on the North Bay.
"Each refuge is different," Brubaker said. "The Marin Islands refuge has the largest heron rookery and the only nesting area for black oystercatchers in the San Francisco Bay. Antioch Dunes was the first national wildlife refuge set aside for an insect, Lange's metalmark butterfly. San Pablo Bay's mix of salt and fresh waters are home for steelhead and shrimp."
Skaggs Island, which was named after a founder of the Safeway supermarket chain, is home to the largest wintering population of canvasback ducks on the West Coast and to endangered species, including the California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse.
Brubaker has ambitious plans to bring the public to the island: "I want to kick off some new projects on the island — Saturday bird walks, bicycle trips, automobile tours," he said. "First, we plan to take down fences, repair roads, put up interpretive signs and organize volunteers to help keep the weeds from getting too rambunctious."
The nonprofit Friends of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge is seeking grants and donations to help restoration efforts. "Skaggs Island is a keystone parcel in making the North Bay wetlands whole and functional again," said the group's president, Francesca Demgen.
Signs will provide visitors with information about the island's history as a military listening post that was put in this remote area to avoid interference from urban radio signals.
It took environmentalists and federal officials, led by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), more than a decade to create legislation that enabled the transfer of Skaggs Island from the Pentagon. About $7 million in state funds was granted for demolition of more than 140 structures, said Navy special projects manager Alex Elias.
"The largest structure of them all was a 200-foot-tall white water tower," Elias said. "Knocking it down marked the start of wildlife conservation as the new mission on Skaggs Island."
The federal wildlife refuge flag, a blue goose on a white background, was raised on Skaggs Island on June 28 during an emotional ceremony.
"Woolsey nearly brought everyone in attendance to tears," Elias recalled, "when she said, 'For so many years this land protected this country. Now, this country will protect this land."